Katniss returns for this bigger, bolder and more significant sequel
Building on its surprisingly strong opening salvo, Catching Fire takes the baton and runs with it.
Further developing its established characters, it takes the right road to success with a focus on story rather than just a rehash of the Battle Royale-inspired survival tournament of the title. Of course we know that we’re eventually going to end up on the battlefield, whittling the numbers down one by one, but Catching Fire, cleverly, remains noticeably more focussed on setting the stage for what’s to come: war.With a new director on board to take the reins, the narrative dips into some dark places of psychological trauma and PTSD. Against a backdrop of totalitarian government, floggings and summary executions, as our worthy heroine Katniss is forced to face her worst fears, fake her love to save those close to her, and ultimately fight – this time, not just for her own life, but for the lives of all those living in the 12 Districts.
Picking up where we left off, the story follows the survivors of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta, on their victory tour of the 12 Districts. Under the watchful eye of the dictatorial President Snow, they are tasked with stemming the simmering uprising against the Capitol, and perpetuating their improvised ‘true love’ relationship as a means to doing this. This doesn’t sit well with Katniss’s real true love, Gale Hawthorne, who is more interested in fuelling the uprising than preventing it, and who doesn’t like to see press footage of Katniss together with Peeta publicised at every turn.
Of course, ultimately, Snow isn’t really willing to settle for anything short of Katniss’s death, and so he sets his sights on getting her back into the Games and, this time, making sure that she doesn’t leave the arena alive.
Katniss is more than just a Tribute or a Victor now - she's the hope of the revolution; she is the Mockingjay.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games. It far surpassed my expectations – which was essentially that it would be a US Battle Royale remake for the Twilight generation – and delivered us a thrilling survival tournament with an interesting political backdrop; brimming with potential for further instalments. It also gave us Katniss Everdeen, one of the best heroines of the 21st Century.
Having not read the books, I was somewhat concerned that the sequel might succumb to the necessities of its title – namely, that it has to feature a ‘Hunger Games’ tournament – and merely retread the same successful formula as the original, only with different contestants, a different setting and, of course, Katniss at the centre of it all.
Thankfully Catching Fire doesn’t take the easy route, and instead devotes well over half of its substantial running time towards setting the stage of imminent revolution; depicting a population pushed to the brink, just waiting for the signal to rise up and overthrow its oppressors. Succeeding director Francis Lawrence (the man behind Constantine and I Am Legend) confidently steps into Gary Ross’s shoes and skilfully ensures that every single moment counts – every victory tour stop further sows the seed of civil unrest; and every colourful party betrays a further insight into the true corruption behind the decadent Capitol (the ‘bulimia’ drink is an inspired idea, especially when juxtaposed with the 12 satellite Districts whose inhabitants are all starving).
All along the way we follow the increasingly fraught Katniss, painfully suffering from the trauma of her last tournament, only to now face further threat towards her family should she not keep up a convincing pretence of being a ‘happy’ victor before the crowds.
The heart of the series, Katniss, was brought to life by Jennifer Lawrence back in 2012, and she did so with aplomb. Perhaps slightly atypical in terms of unconventional looks and a physique that – arguably – did not conform to the size zero stipulation for leading female characters these days, Lawrence was nonetheless the perfect choice, and remains one of the strongest elements of the first movie. In Catching Fire, however, she is no longer finding her footing and is, instead, allowed to really get her teeth into the role. If you haven’t seen Lawrence in films like Winter’s Bone, and instead know her more for either the first Hunger Games, or for playing Mystique in X-Men: First Class, then you probably don’t know what she is capable of – but the director clearly did, and uses her undeniable talents to bring us a far more interesting character than we got first time around. She’s not just troubled, now she’s traumatised.
You can see the sparks of fury within, a fury which is going to drive the next two chapters.
All of the remaining players are back in place for this new game, and they all – to varying degrees – also get to further develop their characters, with Josh Hutcherson’s frustratingly wet Peeta becoming marginally more tolerable; Woody Harrelson’s senior victor, Haymitch, still a scene-stealing star; Stanley Tucci still the satirically over-the-top host; and Donald Sutherland even more menacing than ever in the kind of superb villainous role that Christopher Lee is now famous for. Liam Hemsworth, who plays the integral role of back-home love interest Gale, still isn’t quite fully involved in the proceedings, but he gets a great deal more to work with this time around. New to the mix, Jeffrey Wright (Bond’s latest Felix Leiter) and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction’s Honey Bunny) seem like somewhat odd choices for past victors, whereas Sam Clafin (Snow White and the Huntsman) is suitably smug, and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) stands out with panache. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a great addition though, entering the proceedings as an old ‘Games expert who is tasked with running the 75th Hunger Games and ensuring they go precisely to President Snow’s plan. Despite ostensibly seeming a better class of actor than this material deserves, Hoffman steps up to the plate, just as he did in Mission: Impossible III, and stands out almost as much here.
Although the editing is clinical to the point of near perfection – one brief moment between Katniss and Gale lasts but a few seconds, has one single spoken line, and yet says absolutely everything that needs to be said between the characters – and the Director capably handles the character and story development over the first half of the movie, maintaining tension (his off-screen execution of a dissenting member of the crowd in one of the districts reminds us that PG-13 / 12A movies can still carry adult themes) and setting things up for a plausible return to the Games in the latter half, he also does a great job with the third act action.
No more shaky-cam. And this director doesn't need blood to give impact to the violence.
Whilst many criticise the first movie’s director for the whole shaky-cam thing, this was probably the hand of Second Unit Director Steven Soderbergh more than Director Gary Ross himself. Personally, I thought it quite effective for maintaining a brutality to the violence without betraying the ever-important rating, but, either way, Francis Lawrence manages to deliver the same results only, this time, with far more weight behind him. Yes, the key to his action sequences is not blood or visceral punch, but instead significance and maybe even substance. Sure, angry monkeys threaten to derail this technique, but the 12 hour ‘nightmares’ still, in principle, spice the Games up somewhat, offsetting the more team-based approach to survival with an imminent threat from the powers outside.Ultimately, however, it’s the character and story development that bolster Catching Fire and give it the power and presence which its predecessor was striving for, allowing for better characterisations, better performances, more intricate plotting and a more satisfying outcome, as things come to a head and we find ourselves on the brink of revolution. It’s the blessing of the second sequel – your characters and story have been established; all the hard work’s been done, and now all you have to do is run with it. Thankfully, Catching Fire chooses the right direction to run in.
Whatever your feelings towards 2012's Hunger Games, if you haven't embraced this massively popular series so far, now's the time to do so. Catching Fire is not only destined to reward dedicated fans, but also to change the minds of even those who have not, thus far, warmed to the Games.
Indeed, it’s just a shame that we have to wait for not one, but two further movies to get to the end of this great series. On the strength of this entry, however, it looks like it will be well worth it.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.